William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, his father, Benjamin, signed the Declaration of Independence and served three terms as governor of Virginia. His mother, Elizabeth was from one of the earliest and most prestigious families in the colonies. William was the youngest of six siblings, and his older brother, Carter Bassett Harrison, served as a member of United States House of Representatives. Growing up during the Revolutionary War William would’ve watched passing Continental troops, heard musket fire from nearby battles, and celebrated when the British surrendered.
William Henry Harrison studied at the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College, between 1787 and 1790. He continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania and studied medicine.
In 1791 William’s father died, leaving his estate to William’s older brothers, which was customary at the time. William wasn’t excited about a career in medicine, and was now broke. He used his family’s connections to procure an officer’s rank in the Army’s First Infantry division. The eighteen-year-old William rounded up about eighty thrill-seekers and troublemakers from Philadelphia’s streets, talked them into signing enlistment papers, and marched them to his assigned post, Fort Washington in the Northwest Territory.
William meet twenty-year-old Anna Symmes at Fort Washington in 1795, her father had just been appointed judge for the region. Anna was attracted to William, but her father disapproved wanting his daughter to find a more prosperous man. When Anna’s father had to travel to another part of the territory, the young couple found a justice of the peace and eloped on November 25, 1795. When her father returned and learned of the marriage, he shouted at William, “How, sir, do you intend to support my daughter?” William replied, “Sir, my sword is my means of support.”
The couple had 10 children, six of whom died before William became president. Their son John Scott Harrison would grow up to become a U.S. congressman from Ohio and the father of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd American president.
In 1798, William resigned from the Army commission and tried his hand at various jobs in the public sector. He was the first representative of the Northwest Territory and served as the member of the Sixth United States Congress from March 1799, to May 1800. He served as the governor of the Indiana territories for twelve years.
Being the governor of the Indiana region, he was responsible for protecting and assisting the American settlers against hostile Native Americans. As governor he exploited Native American poverty, corrupt leadership, and inability to hold liquor. In 1805, through a largely fraudulent land grab of 51 million acres. William and his aides hosted five minor chiefs from the Sac tribe, gave them alcohol, then persuaded them to sign away one-third of modern Illinois, as well as sizable chunks of Wisconsin and Missouri, for one penny per two hundred acres.
By 1809, the Native Americans began to organize a fighting force, under the leadership of The Chief Tecumseh. With British help they attempted to stop the encroachment of settlers on their land.
On November 6, 1811, William’s force of about 950 men moved into position outside a Native American camp, beside the Tippecanoe River. They made camp for the night to prepare for attack the next day. The Indians discovered his force by their campfires and snuck into his camp before dawn and surprised the American forces. Several Army officers were killed among the 190 causalities, William jumped on his horse to rally his men. The Indians couldn’t get through the Army rifle lines and broke off the attack. William ordered a counterattack and was successful in overcoming the Indians by midmorning. The Battle of Tippecanoe became the cornerstone for William’s political career and his claim to fame as it inspired and captured the imagination of the general public.
William was made a brigadier general and placed in charge of the Army of the Northwest during the War of 1812. He achieved a decisive victory against the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames. Chief Tecumseh was killed during the battle and the confederation of Indian tribes he led never posed a threat in the region again.
In May of 1814, with the war still raging, William resigned from the Army and settled into life on his farm in North Bend, Ohio to concentrate on his political career. Two years later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio and served at that capacity from 1816 to 1819, and then served in the Ohio Senate between 1819 and 1821, he lost a bid for governor in 1820. Over the next two years, he ran for both of Ohio’s seats in the U.S. Senate and lost both races. He was unsuccessful at his attempt to return to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1822.
William finally won a U.S. Senate seat in 1824 and secured appointments to two military committees before being named the ambassador to Colombia. He resigned his senate seat in 1828 to go to Colombia, a post he held for a year in a country that was torn by revolution and foreign war. When Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency he recalled his old foe and William returned to Ohio. His farm didn’t perform well, and when money problems grew worse he was forced to work a menial job as recorder for his county.
In 1836 William was selected as a one of three Whig candidates for president against Martin Van Buren. William come in second and carried nine out of twenty-six states in the Union. His moderate success demonstrated to the Whigs that he was the candidate to unseat Van Buren in 1840.
In the 1840 election the Whigs flooded America with cups, plates, flags, and sewing boxes with Old Tip pictured on them. In June 1840, a Harrison rally at the site of the Tippecanoe battle drew 60,000 people, by the end of the campaign, there were parades three miles long of voters singing, chanting and drinking.
William won the presidency with an electoral vote of 234-60 and approximately 53 percent of the popular vote. On March 4, 1841, at the age of 68, he took the oath of office on a freezing, snowing day and gave the longest inaugural address in history, without a coat or hat. He did take time to become the first president to have his photograph taken on their Inauguration Day. His wife Anna didn’t accompany William to Washington due to being depressed and ill from having just lost one of their children.
William developed pneumonia and exactly one month after taking the oath of office, William passed away on April 4, 1841. He served the shortest term as the American president to date, 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes.
He passed away leaving his family with no money. Anna, who outlived William by two decades, became the first presidential widow to receive a pension from Congress, a one-time payment of $25,000, the equivalent of one year of William’s White House salary. She was also given free postage on all her mail.
William and Anna Harrison are buried at the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial in North Bend, Ohio.
“There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.”
“A decent and manly examination of the acts of government should be not only tolerated, but encouraged.”
“I contend that the strongest of all governments is that which is most free.”
“The virtue of its Citizens is the only Support of a Republican government.”
“I believe that all the measures of the Government are directed to the purpose of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
“Far different is the power of our sovereignty. It can interfere with no one’s faith, prescribe forms of worship for no one’s observance, inflict no punishment but after well-ascertained guilt, the result of investigation under rules prescribed by the Constitution itself.”
“The chains of military despotism, once fastened upon a nation, ages might pass away before they could be shaken off.”
“The broad foundation upon which our Constitution rests being the people—a breath of theirs having made, as a breath can unmake, change, or modify it—it can be assigned to none of the great divisions of government but to that of democracy.”
“The people are the best guardians of their own rights and it is the duty of their executive to abstain from interfering in or thwarting the sacred exercise of the lawmaking functions of their government.”
“We admit of no government by divine right….The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.”
“I believe and I say it is true Democratic feeling, that all the measures of the Government are directed to the purpose of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
“If parties in a republic are necessary to secure a degree of vigilance sufficient to keep the public functionaries within the bounds of law and duty, at that point their usefulness ends. Beyond that they become destructive of public virtue, the parent of a spirit antagonist to that of liberty, and eventually its inevitable conqueror.”
“I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me…”
“The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.”
“The plea of necessity, that eternal argument of all conspirators.”
“All the lessons of history and experience must be lost upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages we happen to possess.”
“Our citizens must be content with the exercise of the powers with which the Constitution clothes them.”
“Sir, I wish to understand the true principles of the Government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”
“Times change, and we change with them.”
“ I am the clerk of the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County at your service . . . Some folks are silly enough to have formed a plan to make a president of the U.S. out of this clerk and clod hopper.”